14 Symptoms of a Poorly Positioned Consultancy

Earlier this year, I gave a workshop to a mid-sized consulting firm. One of the sessions was about ‘symptoms of a poorly positioned consultancy’. As it is such an important topic, I wanted to share what these symptoms are with my readers.

Most consultancies I meet don’t end up where they had hoped. Their reputational footprint or authority is not strong enough, they struggle to build a healthy pipeline, they aren’t working with the type of clients they envisioned, and - the most difficult challenge of all - the leaders/owners have a lot of internal debate about the vision and direction.

What I experience is that - in most cases - those mid-sized consultancies played the generalist (laundry list of services), inward-looking (talking about themselves all the time instead of about the client’s prototypical problems) game for way too long. That may have worked 5 years ago, but it is almost old-school today. Many new, extremely specialized consultancy firms have started in the past years, and they are hitting the ground running. It’s a losing battle in our arduous consulting space.

Recommended reading: Your Consulting Positioning Has the Single Biggest Impact on the Buying Decision

When I review the generalist, inward-looking consultancy, the symptoms quickly get on the table. It’s not a difficult exercise after all, and, strangely enough, the partners/owners are pretty aware of these symptoms but unable to get rid of them.

Symptoms of a poorly positioned consultancy

Having worked with dozens of consultancies and spoken to 200+ consultants in the past 2 years, I’ve developed a list of the most important symptoms  of poor positioning. Here you go.

  1. New leads: receiving few spontaneous invitations and requests for expertise, poor overall visible in the market/industry, see also my LinkedIn post;

  2. Proposals: writing (extended) customized proposals all the time (due to saying yes to almost everything), a stressful and time-consuming activity;

  3. Win rates: suffering from low win rates and not knowing why pitches get lost (reputed consultancies have >70% win rates), mainly looking at the competition instead of doing introspection (not created enough trust with the prospect, see my LinkedIn post);

  4. Briefings: plain acceptance of project briefings of the prospect, being afraid to give candid pushback because of 1) not having enough expertise depth and 2) being afraid to lose the prospect;

  5. Objections: struggling with strenuous client objections (not specializing results in not deeply knowing all the possible objections) and the inability to answer the ugly question ‘why should we hire your consultancy?’ (and if they get that question, they already lost the game);

  6. Saying No: hardly ever saying NO because of keeping all options open to protect revenue;

  7. Narrative: constantly twisting the expertise narrative to ease the pitch (resulting in quickly leaving the internally agreed expertise lane, this is a big struggle between owners/partners all the time)

  8. Rates: getting requested to share rates & costs, even before the pitch (this is a form of disbelieve and/or lack of trust in the expertise);

  9. Discounts: allowing serious discounts to please the prospect/client, client payments are slow, the client doesn’t seem to care (consultancies with a strong reputation hardly ever get the discount question, been there myself);

  10. Gatekeepers: struggling with though gatekeepers (e.g. procurement) and not getting client air cover or support to get through the gatekeepers smoothly (again, it’s a big message if consultancies don’t get gatekeeper support);

  11. C-level: getting managed by lower-level team members, considering the consultancy as lower-level order takers, disconnected from the C-level;

  12. Measurement: getting measured on ‘hours performed’ instead of (transformational) outcomes. These consultancies are selling ‘availability’;

  13. Case studies: struggling to provide transformational case studies and social proof, because of the laundry list of services, it’s difficult to demonstrate specific, distinctive expertise (and it’s not doable from a workload perspective);

  14. Content: not really knowing what to write about to demonstrate expertise, build trust, improve visibility. I always check this first in my assessments, and I also ask Google what ‘trust stuff’ can be found from the consultancy;

More, these are the most frequent challenges I’ve encountered in the past few years.

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My three-pronged approach to addressing these symptoms

When I see multiple of these symptoms during my assessments, I immediately start working with a consultancy in 3 directions:

  1. Focus: create more focus (specialization). There’s no alternative (but it can be done in multiple ways);

  2. Outward view: move from an inward to outward view: understanding the buyers’ needs/wants and shift from an inward-looking laundry list service offering (‘here’s is what we do’) to a differentiating value proposition (‘here’s our pain-resolution impact’) step by step;

  3. Thought leadership: start to improve the evidence of expertise (micro thought leadership at the partner/owner level) via building and growing a reputational footprint (reputation = visibility x expertise x trust).

I spend much time helping the partners/owners understand how important it is to move to an outward view, starting from the prototypical pain points of their ideal clients and developing a new value proposition.

Recommended reading: There Are Two Ways Of Doing Consulting, One Is Toxic

Value propositions are based on the pain points, and that’s where the thought leadership gets built (problem-resolution advice and inspiring to make the transformational move).

Those who have followed me for a while already know what I am talking about here.

Shift in consulting

The 2 main reasons for a massive shift in consulting in the past years (accelerated by the pandemic) are:

  1. Buying behavior: the way buyers buy has changed forever, I’ve explained this in  'The Big Question' in my newsletter 44, and I have posted about it on Linkedin;

  2. The era of specialists: prospects - confronted with an ever-growing complexity in the business - are looking for specialists to help them solve their problems. And the value proposition definition is the best way to attract prospects to the expertise. I’ve explained this in a post on Linkedin.

Recommended reading: 10 Consulting Trends: 2022 Edition

So, I hope that helps with your reflection in becoming a successful 2022 specialized consultancy firm.

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Luk Smeyers

Hello, I’m Luk Smeyers and I’m guiding consultants through the journey of growing their business by helping them transform into visible authorities.  I have been in consulting businesses for almost 20 years, in very different roles: as European CHRO in a global consultancy, as a startup founder in an analytics consultancy, and as a leader in a 'Big 4' consultancy, post-acquisition of the startup. I had the privilege of achieving global visibility as a consultant and I never had to sell, persuade, or negotiate as a result. I have now bundled all those experiences, expertise, know-how, research, reading, successes, struggles, and failures from managing and growing that visibility in the past years. 

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